Can GPS units on school buses save gas?

South Carolina is looking to save money by spending roughly $4 million on GPS units that can track every move made by the state's school buses and road construction vehicles.

The state expects to award a contract this week for 12,250 GPS tracking devices, with just more than half outfitting the state's fleet of public school buses and the rest put on Department of Transportation vehicles, from backhoes to roadside safety trucks. Nine companies submitted bids, according to the state Budget and Control Board.

Cities and school districts around the country are using the technology to cut waste and abuse. New York City is outfitting a still-undetermined number of its school buses through a pilot program this year. But as the nation's only state to own and maintain a statewide school bus fleet, South Carolina may be the first state to install GPS units on all of its school buses.

Beyond tracking vehicles, the GPS units will transmit when drivers speed, excessively idle and accelerate, which transportation officials want to eliminate.

“We can tell the driver to stop,” said Don Tudor, the state Education Department's transportation director.

If the devices cut fuel use by just a couple of gallons of gas daily per bus, they'll pay for themselves within a year. On average, each school bus travels 16,000 miles a year, he said.

“The numbers are really, really simple. It's amazing how quickly it pays for itself, on top of all the safety benefits,” Tudor said.

The units capture every time a school bus opens its doors, flashes lights and puts out its stop sign, so local bus shop officials can check if drivers are properly stopping for students and railroad tracks. If a bus breaks down, officials can pinpoint the closest bus, Tudor said.

“And if a parent calls in and says, ‘The bus didn't come this morning,' we'll know in a millisecond whether the bus was there or not,” he said.

The units will go into roughly two-thirds of DOT's fleet, said John White, the agency's director of supply and equipment.

He's looking to save fuel and prevent engine wear and tear with the system's instant notification of engine problems. The units also will come in handy during emergencies, such as hurricanes and ice storms, he said.

Across the country, much of the savings from GPS tracking units has come from stopping employees from using their government-issued vehicles to loaf or run private errands.

Last year, the Long Island town of Islip, N.Y., put the devices on 635 vehicles, from street sweepers to tax assessors' and engineering vehicles. Employees kept to their route during the work day, and those who drove their vehicle home stopped using it for personal travel, said Stephen Lapham, the town's commissioner of public works.

In three months, the town saved nearly 14,000 gallons of gas.

“In essence, you're getting a full day's work for a full day's pay,” Lapham said.